Snobbery and Michael Bolton’s Secret Passion

My Secret Passion — Sounds like a headline from People magazine, doesn’t it?

Okay. I began studying classical piano when I was ten; I’m currently 43. I come from an opera-mad Italian family whose members could sing “La Traviata” and “Rigoletto” — including the quartet — from memory over the dinner table. I consider no home complete without a copy of the Victor book, which my dad knew like most preachers know the Bible. This music is my vernacular, and for most other operatic snobs who feel the need to denigrate modern voices like Bolton’s, I can bury them with knowledge of the fine details.

However, like I said, I’m also 43. I came of age during the glory days of the high tenor in rock and pop, the early 80s, and the best of them are outright magnificent by any reasonable standard. Are they what I would call operatic voices? Of course not. Neither is Streisand. There’s more than one way to sing, after all. These voices aren’t worse, simply different. They color the notes more; in modern singing, each note has more structure inside of it compared to classical voice, which prizes uniformity of color within the individual notes and within a singer’s range. I have to ask myself how many snobs who feel that Bolton had no business singing these pieces would have reacted to Maria Callas’s changes in color and florid interps if they hadn’t been told by their own snobbery and 40 years of history that they were supposed to like her.

Now, I’m familiar with Bolton’s voice only from having grown up in the 80s. The most I could say prior to this CD is that I liked his old interp of Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” and found it more extravagant than Redding’s own more resigned take. I like his voice, but am not terribly familiar with it and am not what you would call a fan.

And his take on these arias is beautiful and charming. After a while, any opera fan gets sick and tired of hearing a dozen beautiful voices desperately trying to imitate the same two singers and singing the same damned cadenzas over and over. Seriously — how many times do we need to hear Caruso’s cadenzas? These pieces are meant to bleed and sweat, not be listened to as auditory valium, with no surprises and sung the same damned way over and over ad nauseum.

Bolton’s different technique and style of singing adds an immediacy and unpredictability to these beautiful arias that they badly need. Instead of sitting back and being lulled into a familiar contentment with them, one is forced to sit forward and pay attention, unsure of what’s going to come next.

Of course, he doesn’t sing with an operatic technique — he has a complete, coherent technique of his own, and for anyone who wants to sit static and listen to yet one more passable voice try to imitate Caruso, well, there are dozens of ordinary young tenors you can pick from, all of them desperately trying to sound exactly like one another. I’ll let you in on a secret — most lay listeners can’t even tell them apart.

So, if you want to finally get these arias dragged into the twentieth or twenty-first century, and moreover be pleasantly surprised at how well they translate into the modern era with a gifted nonoperatic voice, then this is the CD for you. It’s not for the stodgy, and it’s not for people who treat classical music like a security blanket or a pacifier. These pieces and the operas they’re from aren’t meant to be sucked on to put you to sleep. For God’s sake, “Aida” has someone being buried alive, and “Tosca” ends with a suicide! They are beautiful music meant to shake you down a bit, and they have here been interpreted by a very gifted singer. Has Bolton replaced Luciano, Placido, and Beniamino? No — but then if you think he was trying to, you’re missing the point.

So mark me down as someone who was delighted and transported by Domingo in the LA Opera’s “Tamerlano” this past November, who cranks up Pavarotti, Southerland, and Sills and who also finds this CD absolutely lovely and a delight from start to finish. Bolton’s voice is clear, clean, powerful, accurate, and precise, and he has a marvelous range of particular interest to me.

Some people listen to music not because they love it, but because it marks their tribal membership to others around them. They only recognize something as Great Art if it’s hanging in a gallery, and they will promptly be transported by the subtle and demure undertones in a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck if you remove the label and tell them it cost $80 and comes from France. If you are one of those kinds of people and you like your musical boundaries untransgressed, give this CD a pass. If you simply like what’s good and want to hear a gifted (nonoperatic) singer do a lovely job with beautiful music, then you’ll probably find this CD charming, surprising, and well worth the money.

About the only thing I would have changed is I would have liked to hear him have a bash at some Baroque stuff (might have been a bit too high for even him though, although he may have been able to manage some of the ones written for Senesino’s lower register), and I would have liked a slightly less “lush” accompaniment. It sounded a bit too legato and syrupy. Something more subtle and understated would have fitted his voice a bit better, I think.